They were unlikely comrades in arms: the security guard and the stockbroker who stepped out of the shadows of the insurgency to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Abu Maarouf, wiry and good with a gun, headed a hit squad and waged a tribal rebellion against insurgents who had turned the revolt against the Americans into a brutal, thuggish affair. Abu Azzam, heavyset and fond of tailored suits, led secret talks with the Americans that helped forge an alliance with the U.S. military in Abu Ghraib, the no man’s land between Baghdad and Fallouja.
The story of Abu Maarouf and Abu Azzam offers a rare window into the birth and slow death of the Sons of Iraq, the U.S.-backed corps of Sunni fighters who helped end the country’s civil war.
Today, Abu Maarouf is on the run, hunted by the Iraqi army and the group Al Qaeda in Iraq. Afraid of midnight raids and ambushes, he sleeps some nights in irrigation ditches. Many say it’s a miracle he’s still alive.
His old cohort Abu Azzam spends his days inside the blast walls of the hermetic Green Zone in meetings with officials from Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s office.
The divergent fates of these two former Sunni insurgents highlight the major unknown about the intentions of Iraq’s Shiite-led government: Is it reaching out to former Sunni insurgents such as Abu Azzam in the true spirit of “national reconciliation,” or in hopes of splintering the movement?
And will the government’s campaign against men such as Abu Maarouf succeed in snuffing out potential rivals? Or is it planting seeds for a long-term Sunni revolt?
The crackdown also points to a significant change in the U.S. forces’ onetime policy of nurturing and protecting the Sons of Iraq. As the Iraqi government has arrested some of the movement’s leaders, forced others into exile and failed to deliver jobs for rank-and-file fighters, the Americans have regularly deferred to Baghdad’s wishes as they hand over responsibility for the country’s security.
“I worked with the American forces very hard, but in the end they pushed me aside. That’s what they’ve done,” Abu Maarouf said on a recent day in his home village of Alrifoosh, not far from where hooded gunmen once patrolled. He worried that fighters, angry over the government’s actions, might now be open to joining Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The Americans, who once wrote the paychecks for 100,000 fighters with the militias, say their hands are tied.
“We are just walking on eggshells. We are afraid we are going to violate the security agreement,” a U.S. military officer said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Publicly, military spokesmen point to an Iraqi government commitment to find jobs for the fighters, but breeze over the recent pattern of arrests and the fact that there is only one year of funding to absorb the Sons of Iraq into state jobs, with no guarantees those jobs will exist after 2009.
“They [the government] are breaking the back of these organizations,” the U.S. officer said. “They are going after the key leaders, and once they eliminate the key leaders, the members will drift away. The problem is some of them will drift back to their old groups.”
Abu Maarouf walks into his concrete home not far from the canal where his brother’s throat was slit soon after they turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq. The former security guard on some of Saddam Hussein’s properties sits on a thin cushion on a concrete floor covered with a plastic mat, with Kalashnikov rifles and a bulletproof vest stacked against the wall. Three men, dressed in race-car T-shirts and green sweatpants, linger.
“Qaeda defeated the Americans and the Iraqi government. We stopped Qaeda. In a short time, we completely cleared the area,” Abu Maarouf says, sitting cross-legged in a blue suit coated with dust and a checkered tie.
Abu Maarouf recalls the days before the revolt, when Iraqi army officers were kidnapped by Al Qaeda in Iraq and hung from a meat hook and left to rot for three days.
“No one could capture these people. And the Iraqi government stood by helplessly. We fixed the situation, and now they want to oust us. It’s not right,” he says.
At first, the Americans wanted Abu Maarouf captured. He was a known insurgent. In 2005, the U.S. military bombed his house in an airstrike, and the heap of yellow rubble from the attack still stands in his yard next to a white plastic picnic table. His fealties before his revolt remain a mystery. He calls himself an independent; others mention the 1920 Revolution Brigades, one of the largest armed groups, and even Al Qaeda in Iraq.
As his revolt gained credibility, Abu Maarouf’s old comrade Abu Azzam, whom he had known from huddles with other insurgent groups, introduced him to the Americans. In turn, Abu Maarouf’s forces helped Abu Azzam seize control of his village from militants and establish his own paramilitary force.
U.S. military officers who remember him from that time describe him in epic terms. “He sacrificed everything to fight Qaeda. He almost turned his back on his family. Qaeda would rape and kill; a guy like Abu Maarouf cleaned the area up,” a second officer said, also on condition of anonymity. “He set the conditions for the U.S. military expansion into the area, more than anything you could imagine.”
Abu Maarouf reflects on the promise then of an alliance with the Americans. He smiles at the memory of officers he fought alongside.
“I used to go ahead of their tanks and disable bombs for them,” he recalls.
He thinks back to the change when the commander they worked with during the U.S. military troop buildup left at the end of 2007. He complains that the new battalion commander treated him like he was the enemy.
“I always spoke in the language of the resistance, and maybe he didn’t like that,” Abu Maarouf says with a wry grin.
Abu Maarouf wonders where his old friends from the U.S. Army are now. Some of them are back in Iraq, and they haven’t contacted him. A month ago, the Iraqi army raided his house and detained his son and his brother. His brother has since been released, and Abu Maarouf says the Americans have told him they cannot guarantee he won’t be arrested too.
On Wednesday, he officially resigned from the Sons of Iraq. He has ordered his men to stay on the job, but vows he will not return unless his son is freed and the government guarantees him immunity from the courts.
Meanwhile, since last spring, his old colleague Abu Azzam spends little time in Abu Ghraib. As Abu Maarouf chose to roam from village to village, his comrade sought sanctuary in the capital, first under the protection of Sunni religious leaders, and then in the Green Zone’s Rashid Hotel once his relations thawed with Maliki.
Asked about Abu Azzam, Abu Maarouf answers: “One minute I hear he is an advisor to the prime minister or the head of the Awakenings for Baghdad,” he says, using another name for the Sons of Iraq.
Sitting in a business suit, with a pile of papers, Abu Azzam portrays his goals as firmly political. Arrest warrants once hung over his head, but Abu Azzam managed to reach an understanding with Maliki’s office in September, and it has served him well. U.S. officers say Abu Azzam had provided the Iraqi government with a channel to the insurgents.
He says his job now is still to shuffle between the government and members of the Awakening.
“I have good relationships with the government. They are interested in what I’m doing,” he said between meetings on a typical day in the Green Zone.
He acknowledges that his group of fighters dwindled after the crackdown against him last spring and his relocation to Baghdad.
In some ways it is a culmination of his longtime mission. A former member of the insurgent group the Islamic Army, he initiated secret talks with the U.S. Embassy in June 2006. By that autumn, Abu Azzam claims to have drawn factions from the Islamic Army and three other groups into a truce with the Americans.
In Abu Azzam’s view, the Sunni revolt had been misguided. He saw working with the Americans as the way to counteract Iranian influence in the country. He says some now consider him a pariah within his own community.
After everything that has happened, he chuckles that some Sunnis think he went too far. Still, he has won a seat on the Baghdad provincial council and plans to run in national elections this fall. He thinks the Americans have put a halt to the latest string of arrests against the Sons of Iraq, but is unsure how events will play out. He sees a divided Shiite government, with people around Maliki who both support and oppose reaching out to men like him.
Abu Azzam predicts that one day soon Abu Maarouf will be arrested. He complains that his old friend has never given up his ties to the insurgency and this has doomed him.
In their own way, each is prepared for the worst. Abu Maarouf says he can defend himself if the government tries to arrest him, and even Abu Azzam speaks of the possibility of war.
“If we don’t have our place [in the government] then we have another place,” he said on a recent day of meetings with the Americans and the prime minister’s office. “We will have a role in any case whether in peace or war. We wish to have our role in peace.”
Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Usama Redha contributed to this report.